What does Wonder Woman, the superhero who first appeared in 1941, have to do with polyamory, pessaries, and the polygraph? As Jill Lepore reports in her fascinating new work of nonfiction, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, everything. Here are some of the book’s most fascinating revelations:
1. Psychologist and storyteller William Moulton Marston invented the first lie detector test while an undergraduate at Harvard. He then created Wonder Woman, whose magic lasso could force men to tell the truth, at age 48.
2. Unfortunately, Lepore writes, “for all of Marston’s charm, his [lie detector’s] near-perfect laboratory results generally failed to impress men involved in actual criminal investigation” (pg. 51). He couldn’t sell or make any real money off of his invention. A trial judge dismissed evidence produced by the lie detector in 1922, saying, “When it is developed to the perfection of the telephone and the telegraph and wireless and a few other things we will consider it. I shall be dead by that time, probably, and it will bother some other judge, not me” (pg. 69). The defendant whom Marston was hoping to help was sentenced to life in prison. Another man later read Marston’s research and created his own similar lie detector, which he patented as the polygraph. There are now millions in use all over the country.
3. Marston was a well-born bohemian who drew on staunch feminist and free love ideals from the early 20th century and the influences of the two women he loved: his official wife, Betty Holloway Marston, who supported the family because, until Wonder Woman, Marston could not hold down a job; and his long-term live-in mistress, Olive Byrne, originally a student of Marston’s, who raised all of his children. In lieu of a wedding ring, Olive wore bracelets on which Wonder Woman’s bullet-deflecting bracelets were based. A third woman also shared the house with them, off and on; it’s implied she was Holloway’s lover and possibly Byrne’s, too.
4. Margaret Sanger, who went on to found what became Planned Parenthood, delivered a baby for the first time “when she was only eight years old” (pg. 82)—her niece, Olive Byrne. She then saved Olive’s life when Olive’s father, irritated by her crying, threw the baby into a snowbank. She went on to dedicate her life to making birth control available, affordable, and safe for women. Marston was a great admirer of hers.
5. The Amazons of Wonder Woman’s Paradise Island, including Diana Prince herself, are based on Utopian feminist literature of the early 20th century, including Inez Haynes Gilmore’s Angel Island, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, and Margaret Sanger’s Woman and the New Race. “The philosophy of Margaret Sanger’s Woman and the New Race would turn out to be the philosophy of Wonder Woman, precisely” (pg. 102).
6. Dr. Psycho, a Wonder Woman nemesis, was based on a real-life, anti-feminist German psychology professor of Marston’s at Harvard. When Wonder Woman frees Dr. Psycho’s mistreated wife, the wife asks, “What can a weak girl do?” The superhero replies, “Get strong! Earn your own living!” Wonder Woman becomes a General in the army and even, later, President of the United States. Lepore puts it this way: “What the king of the Mole Men and all villains in Wonder Woman share is their opposition to women’s equality. Against each of them, Wonder Woman fights for women’s rights of work, to run for political office, and to lead” (217).
7. Wonder Woman constantly finds herself chained up in the comics, in part because Marston drew on early 20th-century feminist iconography, which often portrayed women bound by the ties of patriarchy, and in part because Marston was a kinkster who found BDSM hot.
8. Marston got started in comics because Olive Byrne wrote puff pieces about him for Family Circle magazine, without disclosing that he was the co-parent of her two children. In one of those interviews, Marston praised the effect of comics on children, and Charles Gaines of DC Comics hired Marston as a consulting psychologist and adviser. It was Marston’s idea to stamp the DC logo on all comic books as a mark of quality. Urged by Holloway, he also told Gaines that a female superhero would help disarm comic book naysayers, who were legion and rabid.
9. The DC in DC Comics stands for “Detective Comics,” making “DC Comics” as redundant as “ATM machine.” (Marvel Comics, their chief rival, was originally called Timely Comics.) Charles Gaines, who founded what became DC Comics, believed in Superman when all other publishers passed, and took on the risk of Wonder Woman too.
10. “Wonder Woman sold like crazy. No one, aside from Superman and Batman, came close” (pg. 209).
11. Critics and psychologists denounced Wonder Woman for the strip’s “lesbian undertones.” One of Wonder Woman’s favorite exclamations is “Suffering Sappho!” Sappho lived on the island of Lesbos, from which the word “lesbian” is derived. She also has various female friends and sidekicks, including Etta Candy, a chubby, cheerful college girl with whom Wonder Woman has this delightful exchange:
“Etta, you know, you ought to cut down on the candy. It will ruin your constitution.”
“My constitution has room for plenty of amendments.”
12. Dorothy Roubicek, probably the first female editor at DC Comics, worked on Wonder Woman and also was the person who suggested that Superman be given a vulnerability to Kryptonite, a detail which was worked into his storyline in 1943. She objected to Wonder Woman being tied up all the time, but Marston assured her that secretly “women enjoy submission,” at least when it came to sex.
13. Most superheroes foundered after WWII. Forgotten comic book heroes from the early days include The Wildcat, Mr. Terrific, The Black Pirate, Little Boy Blue, and the Gay Ghost. Wonder Woman, like Batman and Superman, marched on, but her brand got badly diluted after Marston died in 1947, stricken by polio and cancer, and then Gaines died as well. Censors imposed a strict code on the content of comic books. “Wonder Woman lived on but was scarcely recognizable…smiling, daffy, helpless” (pg. 271).
14. Second-wave feminists like Gloria Steinem, who loved Wonder Woman in the 1940s, brought her back in 1972, featuring her on the cover of the first issue of Ms. Magazine with the headline “Wonder Woman for President.” As Lepore writes, “Wonder Woman is best understood as the missing link in the history of the struggle for women’s equality, a chain of events that begins with the woman suffrage campaigns of the 1910s and ends with the troubled place of feminism a full century later” (pg. 210).
15. In early 1973, DC Comics began publishing “New Adventures of the Original Wonder Woman.” And in 1975, she moved to television: “ABC launched The New Original Wonder Woman. Set in the 1940s, it was based very closely on Marston’s comics” and ran for four years, starring Lynda Carter.
Bonus Random Delightful Facts
1. “The price to get into a nickelodeon was almost never a nickel.” (pg. 33).
2. “In 1910, 4 percent of Americans between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one went to college; by 1920, that number had risen to 8 percent, 40 percent of which were women.” (pg. 17).
3. In the magazine The Nation in 1926, a woman explained that a modern woman was “not altogether satisfied with love, marriage, and a purely domestic career. She wants money of her own. She wants some means of self-expression, perhaps, some way of satisfying her personal ambitions. But she wants a husband, home, and children, too. How to reconcile these two desires in real life, that is the question.” (pg. 121).
4. “The word ‘feminism,’ hardly ever used before 1910, was everywhere by 1913” and advocated for the belief that “women were in every way equal to men” (19).
5. At the turn of the century, “married women were not allowed to train as nurses” (83).
The Secret History of Wonder Woman is available now.